Pupils given a taste of US Congress

Oxfordshire schoolchildren gained an insight into the workings of the United States Congress from two former Congressmen at the Rothermere American Institute on Monday 6 February 2012.

Former Representatives Rich Boucher (Democrat, Virginia, 1983-2011) and Mike Oxley (Republican, Ohio, 1981-2007) talked to sixth form students from Banbury School, Bartholomew School and Cheney School as well as Oxford University undergraduates. Topics discussed included gridlock in Congress; the relationship between Congress and the Presidency; and the forthcoming presidential and congressional elections.

James Goldthorpe, a pupil at Bartholomew School in Eynsham, said: ‘These bipartisan discussions have allowed a better understanding of both parties’ ideologies and views on particular areas.’ Tom Mitchell, also at Bartholomew School, said: ‘My A-level studies will be helped greatly by today and the understanding I have gained will help me follow the news more easily.’

The two former Congressmen served together on the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee for two decades. They agreed that the inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together constructively in today’s Congress limits the legislature’s effectiveness and contributes to its low approval ratings.

Mr Boucher said: ‘We represent something that doesn’t exist today but did in the 1970s and 80s and that is bipartisanship – the majority of the whole house, broadly in the centre, was willing to meet in the middle and make the concessions needed to achieve a workable outcome.’

Some of the fault, Mr Boucher claimed, lies with the media: ‘Republican voters tend to watch Fox News, and Democrats tend to watch MSNBC, and this reinforces their view of the news as a republican or a democrat. Nowadays people are less willing to tolerate disagreement: they arrive at town meetings enraged at what they have heard on their news channel with the result that members of Congress have less flexibility in exchanging views with their constituents. So we have gridlock and Congress doesn’t function for these reasons. There is no reward for finding a workable solution, only punishment – by the party and by your constituents.’

Mr Oxley added: ‘Part of the problem is the lack of presidential leadership – to a large extent Congress is dependent on strong presidential leadership. This is partly to do with presidential elections themselves and trying to get a mandate – if you won the election by outspending and out-negative advertising against your opponent, you don’t have a mandate.’